Flush with success, he's bowled over by toilet repair

SATURDAY'S HERO

January 07, 1995|By ROB KASPER

Once a guy learns how to take a toilet apart, he can have a hard time stopping himself from doing it again. He starts off marveling that the ballcock is connected to the float-ball and before he knows it, the entire gleaming porcelain structure is on the floor, a wonder to behold.

I suppose an appreciation of toilet disassembly is not something most folks come to easily. It helps if you have a teacher. A person who, when the closet flange breaks -- a mistake in the toilet world roughly equivalent to the Grand Coulee Dam bursting -- simply hammers things back into place.

My youngest brother is such a person. He is beyond "handy," he is skilled. He is also left-handed and that is a big advantage in toilet repair. When you take a toilet apart you face the tank. This means the parts that have to be twisted with a wrench end up on your left side.

The last time my brother and I got together we took apart every toilet in our parents' house. Some kids show their gratitude by sending their parents on trips around the world. My brother and I work show our appreciation by working on plumbing. We took the toilets apart, because Mom's sister, Aunt Nora in Memphis, said we should. That is how things work in our family, there is much free-flowing advice.

A plumber told Aunt Nora that one way to make old bathrooms smell better is to replace the wax gaskets that sit under the commodes. After Aunt Nora's advice reached me in Baltimore I was on a plane to Kansas City to see my parents and to act like a plumber's helper. My brother, who lives in Kansas City, got to act like the plumber.

While I waited for my brother to finish his day job as a television cameraman, I amused myself by squirting penetrating oil on the nuts that held the toilets to the floor. The nuts were at the base of the toilets under white caps that had to be pried off. The set of rusty nuts on the first toilet was reluctant but eventually let go. The nuts holding down the second toilet were hiding from me, they were buried under layers of the old wax ring. This should have aroused my suspicion. It didn't. I merely rejoiced that I was free of the nasty job of loosening another set of rusty nuts.

When my brother arrived at my parents' house, the pace quickened. We disconnected the water supply to the first toilet, drained the water, and separated its tank from its bowl. We did this by loosening a couple of rusty bolts on the bottom of the tank. It was hard work, but easier if you are left-handed.

With its tank off, the bowl was not very heavy. We lifted the bowl from the floor and, using putty knives, removed the old wax ring. Slapping a fresh wax ring on the bottom of the bowl, we soon had everything in place.

Pride goeth before the fall, even in toilet repair. My brother and I were cocky as we moved to the next toilet, the one with the hidden nuts. When we lifted this toilet from the floor, the nuts grabbed and broke something called the closet flange, a piece of metal that held the bowl to the floor and helped funnel water from the toilet down the waste pipe. Without a working flange, we didn't have a working toilet.

I was ready to call a real plumber. But my ever-resourceful brother called a plumbing-supply store. After several phone conversations and visits to the store, he devised a repair plan. He knocked a hole the bathroom floor where the old flange used to reside. He put a new $18 flange in the hole, then he filled the gaps with plumber's putty, an amazing substance made by mixing equal amounts from tubes of putty and hardener. Making also required forking over about $10 for the two tubes and waiting 24 hours for the putty to dry. The repair took two days to complete. My mother seemed surprised and grateful -- mostly surprised -- that the procedure was successful.

Buoyed by the Kansas City venture, I returned to my Baltimore home and yanked out the innards of a troublesome toilet. I installed a state-of-the-art refill tube, with a flapper-style flush valve. This required taking the toilet tank apart. I wasn't worried, I had been there before.

My fixed-up toilet had the latest in innards, but it also had a leak. I couldn't find the source of the leak. It took me several days of detective work but eventually I plugged the leak by lifting the toilet up from the floor, and replacing the wax ring underneath it with a new one. I probably could have saved myself some time if I had called my brother in Kansas City -- or even my Aunt Nora in Memphis.

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